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Fragments from My Father

He lives in a remote farmhouse and I Piece Him Together from Afar

By Diego Courchay

Paris Match, 1982
“The problem, is living. Yes? To sneak through that fine margin between boredom and fear. To find a lifeline that isn’t a fugue.” — Claude Courchay

It cost me seven dollars to buy this picture of my father. It’s a bargain, a 1982 antique listed in Italian on eBay by a French seller. Fifteen days for shipping.

I discovered it online. Only moments before, he was distant, but then, on the screen, my father is all smiles. Daddy’s having a good day: arms confidently crossed, in laid-back attire, listening to something being said just out of view as he’s surrounded by four men in suits, all there for him. This is as good as it gets. There’s a movie deal on the way, he’s living in Paris, and just last year the Left he voted for won the French presidency for the first time.

I turn to the next page and he turns towards me and I see his face up close. He’s only 49, all grizzly beard and long hair, still barely greying, still without the hole underneath his left eye where the tumor will be surgically removed.

For now, his ninth book, a novel, has brought him critical acclaim. This I learn reading the review that accompanies the photos I’ve just bought. It’s a two-page spread on yellowing paper, “200 readers have chosen Retour à Malaveil by Claude Courchay.” The photo on the left shows the presentation of the 1982 RTL prize for literature, the one on the right his portrait in full.

My father was born in 1933. He has never so much as turned on a computer, yet the ways of the Internet are inscrutable and will include even those who resist it: pausito83, a seller on the Italian version of eBay, lists this fragment of his past. I write to ask where he found it and a woman named Christine replies that it’s from the weekly Paris-Match. She wishes my family and I all the best, and an eccellente giornata.

At some point before this story is published he’ll go to see his mentor, Simone de Beauvoir, and ask her, “Did you think I would make it?”
“No,” she’ll reply.
She had once told him, “You’re in full possession of all your defects.”

From here on, the legend goes, he’ll stop being a struggling journalist. He’ll buy a house in the city, another in the country and a new car. That’s the way he tells it “That book took me out of the streets.” Later on, he’ll indulge in other things he no longer expected — a third marriage, even a son. This only happens six years later, after he meets a woman 25 years his junior while reading in a cemetery.

There’s a single quote by him, right beneath the portrait on the second page. “Through Retour à Malaveil I may have written the love story I never lived with my mother.” She died in 1968, a widow at an early age who brought up three children during World War Two. The novel is about the war. The review says it’s about man framed for murder who returns home after 15 years in prison. It’s about what happened during the war, what happened right after, and the things people did to each other.

The novel ends with a father and a son who never met buried in the same grave, a lifetime apart. My father lost his father when he was five, to alcoholism and malaria. He has a single memory of him. I have more. They’ve cost me, though this is the first time I pay for one.

It’s been 10 months since we’ve talked. I see him smiling in 1982. He’s 83 years old now and says never been happier. And I believe him.

“It doesn’t work. It can never work. Us schizos roam around in our shell. That’s the burden. An accompanied schizo is just a schizo dreaming of being alone.” — Claude Courchay

He’ll only tell me about the past when I visit him in the house on the hill where he lives alone. On those evenings there’ll be cards and wine, then maybe rum or Jack Daniels. Every so often I’ll step outside to smoke. You’ll hear a deer bark if it’s mating season, cicadas in the summer, but usually it’s just two voices with not another soul for miles. When I can’t go visit, contact is scarce, though I’ve never gone so long without hearing his voice.

He used to write; I never answered. We’ve mostly lived on different continents and he’d send postcards — at first full of drawings for a child too young to read, then letters I’d decipher, on white notepad from a French publisher, with red edges and book titles in the bottom left corner. When he travelled there were photographs and exotic stamps, from Australia, Hong Kong, New York, Mongolia. Later on he sent me articles and cartoons cut from newspapers, on whatever he read that brought me to mind; they had me reading news for the first time. I never got around to writing back. It was always one-way traffic until the summers when I crossed the Atlantic.

Now the one-sidedness is all mine. His aversion to technology means computers, cellphones, the Internet itself, and all that interconnectivity from Facebook, to Whatsapp, to Skype has never reached his hilltop. There’s an old telephone, for what it’s worth. Their relationship is complicated. He’ll tolerate its existence, as long as it doesn’t ring. When it does he’ll loudly curse its intrusion, and sullenly ignore it. The ringing of the phone is emotional blackmail: never give in, never pick up. “It makes it hard to reach you,” I once ventured, knowing that was the point. We had system in place for years, where I’d call and let it ring three times, hang up and call again so he’d know it was me. That implied a lot of obnoxious sound but at least he could be sure it wasn’t a trap, a salesman, an old acquaintance, or whatever else the world threatens to offer him. That stopped working last summer. I’ve varied the number of calls — three, four, five times, three rings, vainly trying to crack the code of his distrust. So I leave a message on the answering machine about once a month. I know he hears them, standing by the piano he uses as a table, nodding to himself before returning to reading or writing a book.

I have that image in my mind’s eye; I have the photograph purchased on eBay. They’re the two extremes of a life fleeing the middle ground, with one man beyond reach on an island of his own making, and the other, the perennial “fuck up,” belatedly earning the jackpot of fame and recognition. The explanation for both is half a century in the making, and it reads like a history book thrown into a mixer: when you’re born the year Hitler came to power, you get the stutters, he’d explain. The historical stutters. You’re born into a crack in time, a place where anything can happen, and history itself doubts which way it’s going, it stutters, trying to finish the phrase with everyone holding their breaths to see what it’ll end up saying. And when you’re born into that, he’d explain, you get a feeling for it, like someone born in a leap year, chasing eclipses all life long. It makes sense then, to be a soldier and a mason, a waiter and a flight attendant, a teacher and a drifter, and to settle for being a journalist and writer getting paid for chasing those stuttering cracks that must feel like home.

But I was born when it was all done and dusted, and history, to him, had run its course. And at the end of times there was silence, sometimes interrupted by the ringing of a phone.

“Fighting? So be it. Start with YOUR OWN liberation. Just words. You’re getting all worked up, little brother. Life isn’t talked, it’s walked. Your only chance is a kick in the ass. Who cares for your ass? Still, you can’t keep on pretending.” — 
Claude Courchay

When in doubt, look to the mirror to find your father. Mother says so, and she ought to know, as so many mothers who one day exclaimed, “How you look like your father!” His sister said so as well, Aunt Maryline, who died years ago. Maybe it’s in the cheeks, the shape of the face, the half-smile. In my mother’s room there’s a photo that could be of me, were it not black and white, taken at some point in the late 1940s — a boy sitting in briefs and short sleeves lifting a baby to its feet with raised arms: her ex-husband and me, the same kid hitting puberty 55 years apart. There’s no photo of him at 28; my face today is somewhere in my father’s past, somewhere in 1961. Now I have a new photo on the way, him at 49, something to inform my future.

The photograph I bought online arrived in New York in a brown envelope. It was sent by a man named Didier Vancoillie, from a place with the long address of J.J. Bousquet Campinus, at Route Privée Bouverie, in the town Roquebrune-sur-Argens, somewhere in the southeast of France. Google tells me it’s a camping site, with a snack-pizzeria and a pool. “Only 7 km from the beach of fine sand.” Someone there has kept the cutout of my father’s literary breakthrough for 35 years. The French postal service is feeling romantic “Love always finds a way,” reads the stamp on the corner of the envelope, next to “Fragile do not bend please.” I’ve called the campsite to ask, but no luck so far.

The two pages are carefully cut, protected by a white piece of paper between them. I lay them on the bed and look. There’s the article on the left, his portrait on the right. The idea is that images can speak to you. Just look at them long enough to annul and rediscover them, tear them down and put them back together with your eyes. Maybe walk out of the room, pretend you’re going to the kitchen and quickly turn back, walk in on them as they’re telling their secret. It actually works. I did it once. There was a photo I had looked at from time to time, for five years, copied from a newspaper’s webpage onto my desktop, observed and deleted and reclaimed at a later date. It shows a white van, a Ford Expedition in a ditch, awkwardly tilted. Upon closer inspection, the van’s roof is sunk in and its hood bent, as if rumpled by a giant fist. There are two firemen in the foreground I willfully ignored every time I tried to see beyond their shiny helmets and coats, at what was left after the crash, the carcass of the van captured by photographers for the next day’s edition. Then one day, five years in, I realized what the firemen were there for. The bodies were still inside.

That’s what springs to mind, thinking about thinking about a picture of my father on my bed. I called after that crash in 2007, to tell him about the girl inside I knew. He said, “Have a drink.” Then, a year later, when I visited him, he said, “me too.” It had happened to him in 1968, his first wife and also a car crash. “She was a terrible driver.” His mother had also just died. He was living on the island of Guadeloupe; the postal service was delayed by the student protests and he got both letters, for his wife, for his mother, in the same batch.

That brought us together. Then, some months later, I was expelled during my third year in college after consistently drifting, and I visited him again. He said, “me too.” From the teacher’s training college, in the early 1950’s. I was his son after all. He had aged somewhat, after his tumor was extracted and his face bore the mark. It had been a long year and he shared this piece of philosophy: “Life is a series of kicks in the ass until you land where you’re supposed to be.” He said so with his dry humor, the kind that can weather a storm and come out just as crisp, but rarely allows the company of a smile, or maybe just a half-smile, the raising of the upper lip like on the portrait I’m looking at.

I smile like that too. We both have a crooked lower tooth that can shoulder some of the blame, though I might have modeled it after him. What’s inherited and what’s copied? What are the chances of losing and failing the same way? What’s mimed and what’s fate? My father was proud of me. I was kicked out of college and he told me “It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to you.” Welcome off the beaten path, my child. Before that, I’d been too much in the sun, and I don’t mean the childhood in California and Mexico. Too tall, for his stunted growth during the war; too handsome, for his ugly duckling persona; too bourgeois for the son of a proud proletarian; too adapted, too well behaved, altogether loveable but foreign and living abroad under another nationality. But it was a matter of time, a bit of symmetry: I was his son after all.

It’s all faded a bit since then. Tension followed by release, the elastic that brings you together retracts as distance takes its toll again. Then you find this photo and you wonder about all the things you should be asking, if only ringing phones also meant answering. He’s 83 and counting, tick-tock. And there’s also that strange idea, after the parallels and common choices, that if you understand his life you’ll get a glimpse into what’s coming for you, and between both of you, and maybe something can be done about all that.

“The fugue, constant of constants. Rambling around. The essential is to flee. You idiot. Elsewhere it will be the same: you bring yourself along. So what? One day, you’ll manage to unhook him.” — Claude Courchay

The man in the photo has no imagination. That man receiving a literary prize couldn’t think up a story unless he’d put himself through it. At least that’s what he used to say, back when he was a journalist, what his best friend from that time repeats to me when we talk on the phone. They did it all together — from the civil war in El Salvador in 1983 to Albania after the fall of the USSR in 1991, to Britain’s handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997. Then fifteen years ago they had an argument. “He’s really very particular,” this friend tells me about the man he crisscrossed the world with, and never spoke to again.

I find photojournalist Michel Setboun after going down a list of the people that could fill in the blanks. Who’s still alive who had been close enough back then? I remembered my father’s postcards, the anecdotes from faraway places and the name that always accompanied them. It doesn’t take long to find Setboun’s webpage, and in it all the trips I heard of as a child. There’s Tirana right after the end of Communism, and portraits of Salvadorian soldiers, and also all the places they no longer visited together. I scroll through the images, remembering scenes my father had mentioned in passing, hoping he’ll appear in the next click alongside some Soviet building. Finally, I use the search icon on the website and his name appears alongside two photographs.

The first shows a soldier in a green uniform with a cap on, half crouching behind the front of a bus, his rifle held up in his left hand, his head twisted back looking at someone to whom he extends his right hand. The bus is a Carpenter, a defunct American manufacturer that produced the classic yellow school bus. The description reads: “El Salvador: San Salvador, fighting with the guerilla inside the city, in mexicanos area. The second is taken from above; it shows three buses blocking a road twisting between houses with corrugated iron roofs. A small figure in green is descending from the first bus. The caption is the same; my father’s unseen but he’s present, somewhere behind his friend’s camera three decades ago, looking at the same scene I’m seeing on my computer screen.

I write to Setboun in French, to the email address featured on the webpage: “I would like to have the chance to write to you and ask certain questions. There are things I would like to learn from you about my father, and your trips together.” He answers the same day, “Yes, of course, Claude was my best friend. We had a falling out, some time ago. A long story. I haven’t had any news.” He then shares his contact details before concluding, “There’s a book to be written about our travels.”

I call him five days later, a Monday morning, via Skype. The connection crackles and swallows half his words. “Is he alive?” is the first thing Setboun asks. He’s been worried by my email, thought this was the call you eventually get, “having received no news and having given non myself.”

“Oh, he’s alive,” I tell him.

He asks me how old my father is now — Setboun is the younger of the two. He quickly ventures a guess lost in the crackling. I tell him Claude is 83 then proceed to describe his life on the hill. He isn’t surprised. “Yes, I know the bonhomme.” The word evokes “man” or “guy” but also “character,” as in “quite a character.” I mention having seen photos of their trips and he cuts in “I even have photos of your birth.” He muses for a moment on their shared experiences, saying my father came with him to Mongolia, El Salvador, the austral regions. His side of the line is deep in thought. He offers to put together some pictures of their times for me, snapshots from that world before.

“The ‘artist’ guy doesn’t make projects. Projects are what’s never carried out.” — Claude Courchay

“Before.” It’s one of those mysteries that creep up with the onset of adulthood: who mom and dad were way back when — back “before” they were parents. That’s the success of the movie Back to the Future, the impossible meeting with them before you came along. Sometimes it can’t be as simple as asking, but I can always take his word for it. I have a time machine of sorts: I can read him…and if dad clams up, if he never opens up again, there’s a lifetime of writing to piece him together.

There’s that photo I’ve brought back from 1982, and on the right side next to the article, the dust jacket of his novel. It’s hard to make out the details in black and white, but you can see a forest stretching into the title, and in a corner below, the silhouette of man’s back walking on a path into the trees, rifle in hand. It’s 317 pages of fiction and a sprinkling of contorted memories. That’s just one of dozens of books to be found on Amazon and secondhand bookstores, and then all the fragments the Internet coughs up.

There’s the cover the magazine, Les Temps Modernes, 27TH year, N. 291, October 1970. In red, atop the vertical listing of authors and articles, it reads Director: Jean-Paul Sartre. It’s a special issue on “American Struggles,” featuring articles on revolutionary black workers in Detroit, the “imperialist strategy” in Argentina, and the urban guerillas in Uruguay. Then, near the bottom: Claude Courchay — Cuba, Summer 1970.

There’s an interview with French writer Catherine Rihoit, in Simone de Beauvoir Studies, Volume 12, 1995, under the title A Crisis of Feminism in France? There, amid discussions on gender politics, there’s a mention in passing: “In the summer of 1979, she was invited to accompany the up-and-coming novelist Claude Courchay to Rome.”

There’s a digitalized version of 25 pages of his non-fiction book, La Soupe Chinoise, found through the Columbia University libraries, where I get a glimpse of his childhood:

“Those mornings when joy rose above Marseille-Veyre, over the translucent wall of the hillside. The roofs of clear tiles descended unto the sea. You hurdle down stairs, down alleys. You’re going fishing. You’re very small. You have the entire ocean to yourself. You fish by hand, among the bricks. The shore is full of them. It’s the liberation of France and the Germans did quite a lot of dynamiting. In a couple of winters, all those bricks will turn to pink pebbles.”

Finally, there’s a brief review of his work, published in the French newspaper Le Monde, on June 24, 1978: “There is a Courchay style that pertains to a way of living and a manner of writing. Because both are in tight rapport, a rare and beautiful authenticity heightens this work where is reflected, in customs and language, our new ‘lost generation.’ A successful witness of our drifting world, this pure hearted vagabond has, to better see the world countercurrent, forced himself to perpetuate his own shipwreck.”

The author is Jacqueline Piatier who Wikipedia tells me worked at Le Monde since 1945, and used to sign J. Piatier so those who didn’t know her would think her a man in what was a man’s world. In 1967 she founded the paper’s literary supplement, which still exists today. Her account of my father seems as precise and personal as anything I’ve ever heard or read on Claude Courchay. She died in 2001.

A “perpetual shipwreck” leaves all sorts of fragments, much as the dynamiting in Marseille by the German army turned a tide of bricks onto the shore. Someone advises me: “You pick up fragments for hours of web searches, return to your desktop, empty the bag and keep a quote, a mention in passing in someone else’s interview, and extract, a review. These are the shards with which to start building the frame.”

Stories need frames, and so do photographs. Framing gives focus and form, margins within which to think or observe. In framing we confine and are able to comprehend. But my father will not be confined. Someone who made it his ethos to never stand still, to never run out of stories, needs a moving frame to match blurry features. But maybe the frame doesn’t have to be perfect — it just needs to capture enough of him to grasp, enough images to form a sequence. That’s when I call Setboun again.

“Your habit of rushing. Life is always behind the dune. The next one. And then its behind you. Everything passes you by. Understand that you can stop without settling. Stick around, if you will. That’s it’s necessary. That…” — Claude Courchay

Michel Setboun started off as an architect, and left the routine of it for photojournalism, in the golden age of French photo agencies. In 1984, he won the World Press Photo for his work on migrant workers in Nigeria. He met my father well before that, in high school in the 1970s, when he was student and my father a teacher, in Gonesse, a suburb on the outskirts of Paris. Setboun was 17 and my father 38. “He was an iconoclast and a bit of a shit-stirrer; he put the school in disarray.” Though he never had my father as his teacher, Setboun was something of a leader among students, and they met amidst the chaos. Later on, my father would be suspended for his teaching methods, despite student protest.

They kept in touch and met again years later. When Setboun started getting assignments abroad my father often went with him. “It interested him because it nourished his books.” Over time, however, my father “became too much of an iconoclast” for his liking. Setboun pauses here, and adds that it’s been fifteen years since they stopped talking, but that he keeps many good memories. He knew my father back in the lean years, down in Rue Saint Jacques, in Paris, when he had no money. Then one day he made some. But he never stopped travelling.

I ask him who my father was back then. “Someone very provoking, amusing, intelligent, outside the norm. His point of view is always interesting.” Complicated, too. They often fought, and in his novels Courchay would write about him, have him play thankless roles, and even killed him off once. It came pretty close in their trip to El Salvador during the civil war, where Setboun was shot the day after my father left the country. “He always regretted that.”

“When your mother came into his life I knew it wouldn’t last.” He says she was young and idealistic, and had all sorts of fantasies. She imagined one life and ended up with this grouchy bear. He wanted his peace and quiet, and in a way he was almost “incapacitated” when it came to those things. “His home in the 14th arrondissement district was really minimum service, go to the caterer, eat half for breakfast and the rest later. Spend the day reading. He has a colossal memory.”

Setboun photographed my birth, and I wonder if it surprised him when he heard his 55-year-old friend was going to be a father. “Not really, all things being possible, why not that? He takes things as they come. It’s not that he’s indifferent, but more so if we’re condemned to live, why not?”

That day an email arrives with six photographs. The first two are a series of thumbnails on a table, taken from above, with my father’s figure repeated in sequences of miniature portraits. The third shows him in a t-shirt, wearing large sunglasses and raising his middle finger to the camera. In the fourth he is in the midst of drinking a beer, and his face disappears in the raised gesture, as he sits sideways on a sofa with a wooden table in front of him. He seems to intrude in the fifth; his eyes closed, amid four other men who serve as backdrop for the gesturing of a man in uniform, outlining some official truth for the ongoing conflict. In the last photograph my father is sitting on a tree trunk, in a white tee dark pants and sandals, his legs open wide and his left hand holding the wrist of his right. There are three men around him, soldiers holding their rifles. The four of them are sharing a laugh, ranging from full-throated to wide grin to that half smile of my father’s.

What are they all laughing about? I’d like to know. That moment, I decide to try calling and ask. I let the phone ring three times and hang up, then call again, and again, until I lose count. Then I think of calling a friend of his who lives in a city a couple hours away from his hillside. We exchange small talk about her grandchildren and my life. Then she tells me he’s well. Yes, the phone is working, he’d said it wasn’t but it was, he just never answers. He was going a bit deaf. “If he’s right next to the phone, maybe.” She’d seen him on Tuesday, at the funeral of an old friend, Madame Brèneur, in a nearby town. The funeral had been full of people and my father had said, “too bad she’s not here to see it.”

So I called him again, and left a message this time.

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